Brace yourselves. A rare and extremely vitriolic opinion is coming.
I think—and have thought since its premiere in 2011—that HBO’s exceedingly popular and critically acclaimed show Game of Thrones is, in a word, shitty. I am (or at least have been made to feel) very much alone in this opinion. I am on the opposite side of the Wall while seemingly everyone else in society who doesn’t live under a pop culture-shaped rock chills at Castle Black and drinks some ale out of a goblet.
Y’all can chill up there with your opinions (which you’re entitled to) and your ale and your rickety ass castle, as far as I’m concerned. I’ll be over here with the Wildlings wylin’ out and knowing what’s really up in the world. Because listen: I have read the books. And by “the books,” I mean the first three books, which is about 2,000 pages of my life I can never get back. I won’t go full Don Draper and pitch you on this opinion so you ultimately agree with me, I’m just trying to elevate the critical discussion about a show that I feel is too readily praised by viewers and pretty much critic-proof.
So why do I even watch the show each week (and I do) if I purportedly hate it so much? Honestly, I sort of just inexplicably find myself frantically connecting to HBOGo every Sunday mostly due to muscle memory and habit, but partially because the show is, on a technical and aesthetic level, superb. The cinematography, locations, set design, costumes, and even the wacky alt-universe Byzantium hairstyles are some special kind of visual porn (though the show lacks for nothing in actual porn). I also suffer from a raging case of pop culture FOMO. But for me, this is where the show’s merits stop. Let’s dive in:
The Opening Credits
Let’s start at the beginning, with literally the beginning of the show: those opening credits. Here are some things I/you could do instead of sit through 1:42 of the Leading Contender in New Songs Guantanamo Bay Could Use as Torture Devices:
- Fast forward through it, but we all know the struggle too well of getting the timing just right and not missing some vital dialogue or beloved character being slaughtered.
- Microwave a personal mini-bag of popcorn.
- Call your mom to let her know you’re alive after that morning’s brunch.
- Become thoroughly confused when a new place shows up on the map in the credits and search Google frantically for the meaning of it.
The acting is subpar. Every single actor (and therefore every single character) on this show is good at one thing (I call this the “Hodor Effect”). If they happen to be blessed by both the Old Gods and the New, they might be good at two things.
- Kit Harington/Jon Snow: mopes. Alternatively: shivers. Alternatively alternatively: knows nothing, which isn’t really a narrative or personal asset.
- Maisie Williams/Arya: asks annoying questions that somehow have managed to go unanswered while aggressively grows her hair out from that super awk bowlcut.
- Lena Headey/Cersei: throws shade/bitches about bitches.
- Sophie Turner/Sansa: floats through her admittedly very hard life with doe eyes and a long-expired naïveté.
- Peter Dinklage/Tyrion: drinks. Alternatively: complains about being a dwarf.
- Nikolaj Coster-Waldau/Jaime: Pre-handlessness: patronizes. Post-handlessness: bumbles.
- Gwendoline Christie/Brienne: is so earnest it physically hurts to watch.
- Daniel Portman/Pod: is so earnest it physically hurts to watch.
- Aidan Gillen/Littlefinger: schemes/plots.
- Alfie Allen/Theon: human personification of the World’s Smallest Violin.
- Conleth Hill/Varys: drops knowledge.
- Iain Glen/Jorah: pines for Daenerys.
- Emilia Clarke/Daenerys: she don’t need no man because she’s an independent ass woman but also she can’t control her children/dragons and is really clueless about how the world works but has great intentions!
- Michiel Huisman/Daario: pines for Daenerys while looking hot.
- Natalie Dormer/Margaery: snatches weaves.
- Dean-Charles Chapman/Tommen: plays with Ser Pounce.
- Kristian Nairn/Hodor: Hodors.
- Iwan Rheon/Ramsay Bolton: rapes, murders, tortures, you know. Just your garden variety sociopath.
The list above doesn’t do the full cast or character list even close to justice, because there are squillions of people on this show and none of them make wise decisions or are remotely compelling in a narrative sense. Even the Watch the Thrones podcast has a weekly segment dedicated to figuring out just who the hell that one character was that you couldn’t recognize or remember. Lastly, and really think about this: do you actually care about any of those squillions of characters? Like, would you be devastated if one of them died, or would you be all, “Oh, GRRM. You dog, you!” Let that percolate and get back to me.
Everyone on #GameOfThrones has a bad idea, and every week we get to watch those ideas prove themselves to be bad. Riveting television.
— Nick Bachan (@nickbachan) May 18, 2015
This Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast episode made the point that Game of Thrones is the Lazy Susan of television shows. As Ryan McGee so astutely asserts (43:25), it’s just a “bunch of five minute scenes that rarely are interconnected.” This show is exhausting. Westeros is, for all intents and purposes, Medieval/Renaissance Europe in a parallel universe. What this adds to the world—a rustic frame of reference and lots and lots of mud and petticoats—is far surpassed by what it detracts—expediency and efficiency. Everything takes three times the effort and infinity times the time to accomplish. This means several things: characters are separated by hundreds of miles with no means of communication except trusty ravens, plotlines are molasses slow, and the audience doesn’t get to know anything unless a character actually witnesses it themselves.1 Even if Benioff and Weiss have done an admirable job (sometimes to the dismay of avid book fans) of condensing and yadda-yaddaing GRRM’s meandering tomes, there are still entire episodes where literally nothing of importance happens (yet someone still manages to die and/or rape and/or fuck something up).
Maybe it’s just me, but this show feels almost completely devoid of joy. Every time I watch it, I find myself sitting and staring at the screen and questioning why I just subjected myself to such misery. No one ever wins in this show. There are no triumphant booyahs or quiet fist pumps. Every single character is sad, either because the world they live in has made them that way or because they themselves are living the consequences of their shitty choices. The kingdom of the Iron Throne is a bleak, bitter, and hateful place where, personally, I find the people to be of commensurate character. Crime in HBO’s Westeros is, as they say, on fleek. Women (and men) are raped and objectified, children are manipulated and traumatized, and innocent bystanders are murdered. I understand this is a fictional world with an ethos and zeitgeist that GRRM has labored over (which I respect very much), but I as a viewer prefer my TV shows to be in some way rewarding. But this show? This show leaves me cold and unfeeling and like I might want to castrate someone.
My favorite is that this is just Westeros. Well. Westeros maybe sucks?
— roxane gay (@rgay) May 18, 2015
And yet. There I am, each and every Sunday night, watching the same depressing, one-dimensional characters slog through the same undignified world, each fervently hoping in their own way that their toils will somehow make an impact. Maybe I am the same way. Maybe each Sunday I am hoping that my singular viewership will karmically ripple out and make this show better; maybe I am really hopewatching instead of hatewatching. I can’t ever be sure. I was watching each week to accrue reasons to hate it, which I think I’ve enumerated here in full. So maybe this is my catharsis—my version of eating a horse heart or becoming no one—and my interests will finally die. Because, as they say, valar morghulis.